For the most part, Ponyville had remained unchanged over the last two months. The salesponies shouted their advertisements in the town square during the day and slept soundly in their beds at night. The farmers worked their fields around the town and visited occasionally for the odd necessity they needed to keep their crops healthy and fruitful. In all actuality, only two things had changed in Ponyville.
The first was the absence of the town librarian, Twilight Sparkle. At first there was a bit of commotion as to the why and the how, but once Luna made the announcement that Celestia’s prized student was travelling abroad to avert some new threat, things things calmed down. It had taken less than a week before the townsfolk stopped asking Spike and the Elements questions about how Twilight was doing after they realized that there were no answers to be had.
The second change was the construction and staffing of what Luna had named ‘Harmony Keep’ on a hill just outside of Ponyville. As with the disappearance of Twilight, such a change in Ponyville was met with concern due to its suddenness. Luna had explained this away by citing that many threats had first made themselves known in Ponyville before spreading elsewhere, and a constant presence of the guards would deter trouble before it truly manifested. At first the townsponies were skeptical of the necessity, until they realized the amount of business that it would bring.
The vast majority of soldiers that would be stationed there took it as something akin to a paid vacation, as well. The hours were easy and their duties light, and Ponyville was filled with folks that were more than willing to show their appreciation to ponies in uniform. For a small percentage of the guards, however, the posting was not to be taken so lightly.
The keep consisted of four stone walls with walkways and turrets on the four corners, and a brief gatehouse to control entrance and exit. A large courtyard dominated most of the space in the keep where drills and muster could be held for the guards stationed there. Next to the yard was the barracks, mess hall and storage areas for weapons, gear and supplies. All in all the keep was what one might expect for a small garrison to occupy.
With all the hustle and bustle of the keep and its occupants it would be easy to miss the small stone structure at the northern corner of the keep, and the quartet of guards that seemingly never moved from their posts except when the shift changed. Unknown to all but themselves, these were Celestia’s Solar Guard and were tasked with the true purpose of the keep.
Within the small stone structure four more guards, all experienced unicorn battle magi, stood at constant attention around what looked like a massive block of pure black stone. Unlike the guards outside the structure who faced outward to spot trespassers, these four unicorns faced inwards towards the black stone looking for any sign of change or movement.
And for the last two months, nothing had changed. Nothing that they could detect, at least. The block of ebony stone wasn’t solid. Within the stone there was a small room and within that room sat Discord. And once Discord was absolutely certain he was not being directly observed, he grinned.
Ah, humans, he mused, so quick to judge. So quick to punish. Discord’s mind drifted back to the first few hours of Twilight’s time on Earth and that critical moment where the humans could give her a chance or not. The stern one in the room wanted a solution to the Twilight problem. The spiteful one wanted the Twilight problem catalogued like a dissected frog. The old one…the old one was the one who would give Discord what he wanted. He had nearly tapped the old one’s mind to switch his certainty with curiosity, his suspicion with trust when Discord received his first surprise: The old man spoke and was willing to give Twilight a chance.
The development shocked Discord, pleasantly so, which wasn’t something the avatar of chaos was able to experience often over the past millennia. And so he had distanced himself from the little scene while contenting himself with simply watching Twilight’s little herd grow through her own merits. Then the cheerful one went and got herself killed and threatened to ruin everything, and Discord had to intervene.
Any further attempts to assist Twilight were curtailed when the spiteful one made her little machine that could see magical energy. It was child’s play for Discord to view the events on Earth while keeping his presence hidden from everyone, but direct action would likely get himself caught or at least suspected.
Speaking of being suspected… Discord’s grin faltered as he felt Celestia’s magical signature approach is cell. She hasn’t visited since this whole thing started. I can guess why she’s coming by now. Has my touch made you so sentimental, Celestia?
The stone wall before Discord’s conjured throne split open to reveal the white alicorn in all her terrible glory. She stalked into the cell and stopped before giving Discord the most frigid glare he had ever experienced.
“Your Majesty, I must protest! You shouldn’t be this close! You shouldn’t even be h—“ One of the unicorn guards shouted as loud as he dared but his concerns were cut off when the stone wall closed behind Celestia.
“Well, welcome to my humble home, Celestia,” Discord greeted affably and with a toothy grin, “I don’t have much to offer in the way of hospitality, but I’ll do what I can.” Instantly a teapot and cup appeared beside Discord and a small stream of piping hot liquid leapt into the cup without the pot so much as moving. “Ever had Earl Grey, my dear? It comes highly recommended from a friend, though he’d deny up and down that we were so close.” He smiled a toothy grin and the cup floated over to her.
“Bring her back,” Celestia commanded, and the cup of tea shot back at Discord like an arrow.
Discord didn’t so much as bat an eye as the scalding hot tea flew at him. A portal opened up an inch from his face and closed immediately after the tea disappeared into it. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, my dear. Her task is not yet complete,” the sing-song reply was intended purely to aggravate, and it was successful.
“Bring. Her. Back.”
“Oh my, my! Someone’s getting a little huffy!” Discord grinned again. “Besides, it’s not like you haven’t done the exact same thing to your precious Twilight when it served your own ends.”
“You sent her away to deny the use of the Elements!” Celestia declared with absolute certainty, “And with her gone you can no longer be--”
“If my goal was to break up the Elements, I’d have killed her or turned her to stone like somepony I could mention,” Discord interrupted before looking to the side to scratch his chin, “Come to think of it, there once was somepony who did that all the time. What was her name again?”
“DISCORD,” Celestia snapped, and she brought one hoof down to emphasize her point. The black stone cracked beneath the impact. “I have never done anything as cruel as you have to Twilight. I would never!”
“I see your mouth moving but all I hear is, ‘I’m a hypocrite!’” Discord snarked with Celestia’s own voice coming from his mouth before sighing and waving a hand at her, “Are you honestly going to deny that you banished Twilight from the environment she felt safe in to make allies against a foe you could not combat yourself?” He gave the words just a moment to sink in before he continued, “I’ll give you a hint: The Summer Sun Celebration.”
Celestia’s barely contained rage fizzled visibly as she made the connection. “Twilight needed friends! She shouldn’t have spent so much time in the library!”
“Mhm, yes, she did need friends, I won’t argue that.” Discord’s gaze narrowed. “And what about all the other lonely ponies out there? I don’t see you going out of your way to put them in friendly environments. Oh, you might say it was for Twilight’s own benefit, but you sent her to save Equestria from your dear sister.”
“And…you sent Twilight away for the same reason? Impossible! The Elements can handle any threat to Equestria!”
Discord’s first response was a snort of laughter. “Need I remind you of the weaknesses of the Elements? They’re bound to the six mares who wield them. I thought I might wake you up to the dangers of losing the Element Bearers when I first broke out, but I didn’t anticipate Twilight or you being quite so resourceful in reversing my tender touch. After all, you’ve had a thousand years to try and reverse the first time I used the power and I’m not seeing any progress there!”
He thought to let loose a braying bit of laughter but the look on Celestia’s face stopped him. “I was also kind enough not to kill them, in case you forgot.”
“The Bearers are far more formidable and resourceful than you give them credit for,” Celestia ground out through clenched teeth.
“I’ll grant you that,” Discord said with a shrug of his mismatched shoulders. “Of course, there’s also the other flaw in the operation of the Elements that you’ve quite understandably neglected.” The alicorn’s anger cooled somewhat and she replied with an arched eyebrow, so he continued, “The Elements operate on the principle of ordered systems. They restored your sister to sanity after a thousand years of Arcanite addiction because that was the natural order of things. They petrified me twice because, let’s admit it, Order and I don’t get along.”
“I fail to see the weakness, Discord. You play at serious discussion when in reality you say nothing at all.”
“You want serious? Fine. Do you think yours is the only system of order in the universe?” Discord’s voice lost all of its jovial tone as he steepled his paws in front of his face. Before Celestia could reply, the stone behind Discord began to crack and crumble to reveal Equestria in flames. “There are things in the dark, Celestia. Things that would devour this little system of Order that you’ve created on this world. And they have just as much chaos in them as you once did. The Elements will fail against them because they perfectly adhere to their own system of Order.”
The burning terrain cleared to reveal monsters that had never been seen before in Equestria. Gouts of green flame rained down from giant metal ships in the sky, and the cities all across the globe burned. Equestrians, Griffons, Zebra… all races were herded into massive factories and were processed. Any resistance was ended brutally and swiftly. And by the end, the metal ships left Equestria as a burned-out husk devoid of life.
“There is no free will for these things. There is no creativity. No thought. No chance. No life. No hope. No souls. They are an abomination in my eyes, and I cannot stop them from devouring this world. Not on my own,” Discord finished as he continued to stare at Celestia even as horrific scenes played out around him.
“Then release me and I will deal with them myself!” Celestia commanded, and Discord did not miss the small note of concern in her eyes at the scenes around her.
“And what then? Oh sure, we might thwart one apocalypse on this world, but then who would stop the next?” Discord asked, and with a snap of his fingers the scenes of fire and death were replaced with a mockery of the Solar Court. Dozens of ponies as well as guards lining the walls but none moved, or spoke or even breathed in their petrified state. At the head of the room was a pedestal made of petrified ponies with a marble throne upon it, and upon that throne sat a pale blue alicorn with a mane and tail not unlike a blizzard of snowflakes. The alicorn surveyed her silent kingdom and laughed.
“One tyranny leads to slavery and extinction. The other is cold, unfeeling stone,” Discord summarized before snapping his fingers and banishing the horrifying predictions. “Which is why it’s a good thing I’m exploring other options. Twily’s helping us avoid both of those bad ends. Really, you should be thanking me!”
Celestia was silent for a long moment as she simply stared at Discord. A mortal observer might have thought the Alicorn was simply a statue from how still she was, but Discord had spent far too much time with Celestia to miss the subtle signs of emotion flickering across her face.
“If there was such a threat, then why didn’t you just tell us? Tell me?” Celestia asked slowly.
“What’s this? An honest question bereft of accusation of threat? You’re making this old heart ache with nostalgia,” Discord clutched his heart dramatically and hunched forward like an elderly creature before turning his gaze to the Alicorn. “I’ll pay you the courtesy of answering your honest question with one of my own: Would you have believed me if I told you?” The question caused Celestia to wince, and Discord chose not to prey on the moment of weakness.
“You have my attention now, Discord,” Celestia recovered quickly before offering Discord an olive branch. “If this threat is so dire then I will assist you in defeating it, but you must bring Twilight back.”
Discord arched an eyebrow before throwing his head back and laughing. “Oh you thought I was doing this to convince you to help me? Oh that’s just precious,” he giggled before sighing and waving a hand. “Oh don’t get all huffy again. I know that when the time comes I need not ask for you to defend this world and its people. I’m happy to say that you’ve learned to cherish the lives of your people over the past thousand years, even if I had to force you to.”
Discord snapped his fingers and the stone cell disappeared only to be replaced with the desolate landscape of the moon while a blue and green globe hovered amidst the void. He waited for Celestia’s eyes to widen as she realized the planet in the sky wasn’t Equestria before continuing. “As I said before, there are things in the dark. Terrifying, heartwarming, revolting, reassuring, monstrous, courageous things. And in one tiny corner of the vast universe is a world filled with people not like you or me or any of your little ponies. The defining trait of these people isn’t magic or honesty or kindness, however, it’s sheer stubborn-minded determination! They don’t look at the impossible and lament, they scratch their chins and bang their heads against the impossible until it becomes possible!”
“I fail to see how that is a virtue…” Celestia answered with a smirk.
Discord’s only response was to pull out a small box with a grille and two buttons on the front. He arched an eyebrow at the alicorn before pressing one of the buttons.
“Four forward, four forward. Move it to the right a little,” The box said, though its voice was clouded with crackling background noise. Any further speech from the box was missed as Celestia nearly ducked by reflex when a shadow crossed over her.
Her gaze rose to the stars to see a curious sight. A metal vehicle of some kind soared serenely through the star-filled sky before slowly descending onto the moon’s surface on a small set of stubby legs.
The box beeped and another voice came from the box. “We copy, you’re down, Eagle.” A second voice answered the first. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” “Roger, Tranquility, we’ve got you on the ground. We’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue but we’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
A hatch opened up on the side of the vehicle and a figure emerged. It was bipedal but the entirety of its features were hidden beneath a massive white suit and backpack, and its head was covered by what looked like a mirrored fish bowl. It clumsily descended the latter on one of the vehicles’ legs before taking its first steps on the moon. “That’s one small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind.” The box crackled one last time before Discord tapped the second button to silence it.
“Do you not comprehend the significance of this?” Discord threw his hands up when Celestia appeared less than impressed. “These people, these humans found a way to leave their home world and set foot on their moon without magic! They saw something that their instincts and common sense said was impossible, then they threw out their instincts and common sense and went to the moon! Without magic, or anyone to guide them along their path to progress. No one like you or me, Celestia. They did this all on their own because they are all alone in the dark against everything that seeks to snuff them out. Twilight is with them now.”
“You sent Twilight to them? Why? To help them fight whatever darkness is about to assail them?” Celestia asked evenly, and her tone was drenched in disbelief.
“Prepare them? It’s a bit too late for that, the darkness is already upon them,” Discord replied darkly, and he raised one paw.
The moonscape disappeared and was replaced with a sun-soaked cityscape with smooth paved roads and several towers of glass and steel surrounded by several more modest buildings. Any sense of wonder that the beautiful city might have had was marred by several black plumes of smoke that dotted the horizons. Any sense of wonder was dispelled completely by the screams.
Several creatures, humans in light clothing were fleeing in droves towards an impromptu barricade where several more humans waited. These new humans could only be soldiers based on their armor and uniforms, though their weapons were black boxes and tubes. As the lightly clothed humans fled behind the barricade, the soldiers advanced to cover their retreat.
Monsters appeared from the alleys around the barricade. Massive insects scuttled forward on blade-like legs and orange glowing eyes locked onto the humans hungrily. Their howls filled the air and they charged after their retreating prey.
“Go, go! Don’t stop running!” One of the soldiers shouted as he spread his stance and raised his weapon towards the closest of the monsters. A rapid burst of BANGs followed by a gout of fire erupted from the weapon in his hands and the monster staggered and fell. The human switched to his second target before the first stopped moving and that one fell to the ground as well after a staccato burst from his weapon. He began to back up and pull a curved box from a pocket on his belt just as a similar box fell from the weapon in his hand.
And just as the box hit the ground, a second story window shattered and a third monster leapt from the window and charged. Warming shouts and weapons fire filled the street but the monster charged the soldier and swiped with both of its claws. One claw knocked the helmet off the human’s head while the second cut a horrid gash across his face and jaw. As the human fell the monster’s jaws shot forward but stopped dead when the human jammed a knife into its serrated maw and twisted before extracting the blade.
The scene shifted to a building where nearly a dozen humans in black uniforms and armor fired their weapons out of doorways and windows at unseen enemies. In the center of the room sat a massive pylon that glowed green and slowly pulsed faster and faster as two humans worked furiously at the pylon’s base.
“No pressure, milady. Take your time. Not like all of Cardiff is at stake,” One of the humans said cheerfully as he sorted through the rats nest of wires on one side of the pylon.
“Shut it, Finch!” the other human snapped, and she gave a panicked look at the pylon as its pulsations increased in frequency. “DAMN IT!” She screamed while grabbing a wire and pulled. The pylon winked out and for a few brief moments neither soldier moved. When the pylon’s flickering did not return both humans shared wide grins before being interrupted by a bolt of green fire that struck the wall behind them.
Four soldiers in tan body armor leveled their weapons on a fifth that staggered out of the darkness of a warehouse aisle. One of the soldiers stepped forward with a first aid kit only to be shot the moment he got within arm’s reach. The shooter screamed pitifully and exploded a second later and the whole warehouse erupted into chaos as lances of green fire were met by the booming reports of the humans weapons.
Two of the humans died in rapid succession which left only one. A near miss destroyed the human’s weapon but he quickly drew a second one and dispatched his attackers while screaming profanity as he tried to back away. A second group of humans entered the warehouse just as the survivor collapsed.
The darkened warehouse was replaced with an empty warehouse where Twilight Sparkle spoke with several humans with every sign of enjoyment. She spent time with one human in particular and gave him several words of encouragement, and moments later a coin began to levitate out of his hand and into the air. Twilight gave one of her winning smiles and clopped her hooves together in approval.
Celestia’s face was a study in shock, and tears rimmed her eyes as she saw the image of her prized student. “You… you actually sent Twilight to help them? You said they were all alone in the dark…”
“Help them?” Discord scoffed at the notion. “Heavens no! Why would they need help? Had I not sent Twilight there would have likely been more deaths, but the human race would have persevered the same way it always has; by making the impossible possible.”
“Then why!?” Celestia screamed as she finally snapped, “Why would you put Twilight in so much danger?”
“Because they are alone in the dark, and they need not be.” Discord steepled his paws before his face and looked at the Alicorn meaningfully. “You should know why by now, Twilight’s been writing to you on the subject for close to two years now. The humans have a saying, ‘the enemy of my enemy is a friend,’ and they need to realize that they have friends in faraway places if they’re ever going to help us.” Discord finished somberly before his eyes lit up. “Plus they have the best toys.”
One paw reached behind him to produce a curious device covered in buttons and knobs. One button press and a knob push and a little metal cart zipped out from behind his throne. It was gray and sat on squat tracks for a low base of gravity, which was the only thing that kept it from toppling over onto its side from the top-heavy turret mounted on it. The little cart skidded to a halt and the little turret twisted to the side to face Celestia. An insect like buzzing issued from the turret, and a hail of projectiles no larger than grains of sand flew out at the Alicorn only to be stopped dead a foot from her. With its initial assault defeated it rotated on its tracks and attempted to ram one of her hooves, only for said hoof to raise and crush it flat.
Discord recoiled in mock horror. “You see? This is why we never get along, Celestia. You break all my things.” He let out a mock sigh before tossing the device in his lap over his shoulder. For a brief second a portal opened up to reveal a unicorn guard drenched in tea just long enough for his discarded device to pass through. A shout of warning and the start of an explosion was cut off as the portal disappeared.
Celestia arched an eyebrow at Discord’s antics before looking down at the little thing she had crushed. “Promise me that she’ll be alright. Promise me that she’ll come out of this unharmed. Please!”
Celestia glared at Discord and brought one hoof down on the stone in front of her to further flatten the toy. “Then bring her back. Now.”
“I cannot. We made a deal, and there’s only one way she may return to Equestria. I cannot interfere,” Discord refused as he continued to stare at Celestia over his steepled paws. “Have faith in your student, Celestia. After all, she is far more formidable and resourceful than you give her credit for.”
The anger slowly bled from Celestia’s face as her own words were used against her. “Princess Cadance can feel Twilight’s heart, wherever she is. If that heart goes out, I will return and erase you from existence even if I am destroyed in the process. Pray that she does return, Discord,” Celestia said sharply before turning back to the stone wall which parted before her.
“If she does not return, then we shall all soon cease to be, Celestia,” Discord whispered as the cell wall slammed shut.
A long moment of silence passed before the avatar of chaos finally spoke again. “You are rather daring, to sneak in as Celestia was making her exit. Invisibility implies a certain degree of mastery of spellcraft… or infiltration. Which is it, hmmm?”
Moments passed before a brown unicorn mare shimmered into visibility in one of the far corners of Discord’s cell. Her mane, coat and eyes were all brown and her cutie mark was a daisy, while her expression was that of dour disinterest. She blinked and for just a moment her eyes were replaced with bright green before a second blink reset them. She stepped forward and bowed before Discord before speaking, “I am but a messenger for my lady, great one. Queen Chrysalis congratulates you on your successful banishment of Twilight Sparkle. You have struck a mighty blow against Celestia and her regime, and as such my queen wishes to offer her assistance in any endeavor you may undertake against the tyranny of the Sun.”
“Oh my, what a generous proposal!” Discord said and he clapped his paws with glee. “I don’t suppose I could speak with Chrysalis now? Ever since her own attempted plot in Canterlot I’ve just been dying to let her in on a secret. Can you…y’know, connect me to her?”
The fake mare closed her eyes and spoke, “You speak to Chrysalis now, Lord Discord.” The mare opened her now vividly green eyes to look up at Discord--only for them to go wide with sanity-bleeding terror. Her jaw hung wide and every impulse screamed to flee the horror before her.
A hundred, a thousand, a million eyes stared down at the changeling. Pony eyes, gryphon eyes, changeling eyes, fish eyes, insect eyes, and eyes beyond all description stared into her very soul. A smile, a gaping maw filled with a billion teeth from a billion different sources smiled. “My dear Chryssy,” A thousand voices said simultaneously as the impossibly toothy grin only grew, “I haven’t forgotten what you tried to do to Celestia!” Before the changeling could do so much as flinch from the implications, a thousand limbs rushed forward. Tentacles, claws, paws, hooves, pincers, and a thousand other limbs that defied explanation engulfed the changeling.
The stone wall split open and the unicorn magi rushed in with spells ready to identify the source of the screaming. They found a bland unicorn mare trying to press herself through the opposite wall of the cell while screaming her voice into disuse while Discord did nothing but sit upon his throne and grin innocently.
“Discord! Who is this? What did you do to her?” The arch magi accused while the other guards dragged the hysterical mare to safety.
“How should I know? It wasn’t me who let a perfectly normal unicorn into my cell. Perhaps you should be replaced with someone more competent,” Discord snarked, and he gave a finger wave to the screaming former changeling just as the wall closed shut.